On May 13, an estimated crowd of 200,000 people gathered at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima in Portugal to celebrate the feast day that marks the Blessed Mother’s first apparition to three young shepherd children in 1917.
The recent celebration marked a return of the massive crowds that make the shrine one of the world’s largest Catholic pilgrimage sites. In 2020, just months after COVID-19 began to spread worldwide, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima was closed to the public. Last year, only 7,500 people were allowed to attend the ceremony on Our Lady’s feast day.
But even as attendance restrictions were removed, COVID-19 remained on the minds of some of the pilgrims who flocked to Portugal. In an interview with Reuters, retiree Teresa Maria, 62, chose to keep her mask on during the feast day ceremony. “I always try to take precautions,” she said. “We are not free from it, because cases are going up.”
According to Reuters, Portugal “has the European Union’s highest seven-day rolling average of cases per million inhabitants” and “health experts believe a ‘sixth wave is shaping up very intensely.'”
Things aren’t looking great in the United States, either. In states across the country, especially in the Northeast and upper Midwest, subvariants of the omicron strain have caused cases, hospitalizations and deaths to increase sharply.
The website Axios summed it up well, saying: “As variants spread, warm weather returns and more people let their guard down, cases are on the rise. While numbers appear far better than what they once were, officials warn the virus isn’t done with us yet.”
On March 27, 2020 — just weeks after COVID-19 had been officially declared a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organization — Pope Francis stood in front of St. Peter’s Basilica blessing St. Peter’s Square and, indeed, the world with the Blessed Sacrament. Few who witnessed his extraordinary blessing will forget it — and as the virus continues to infect people across the world, we mustn’t.
“Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities,” Pope Francis said as the sky above St. Peter’s turned to twilight. “It has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel, we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat … are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying ‘We are perishing,’ so we, too, have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”
On that day, an ocean away, the United States was mourning its first 700 deaths attributed to COVID-19. Now, a little more than two years later, we have reached a milestone that seemed unfathomable at the time: 1 million lives lost because of the coronavirus.
By now, it’s likely that everyone reading this knows someone who has died from COVID-19. My wife lost her mother; my aunt lost her husband; so many others lost friends and family members. This virus, and the fallout from the pandemic, has impacted — and continues to impact — nearly every aspect of our lives, including our beloved Church and parishes. And while the number of cases and deaths are down significantly from what they were at the peak of devastation, they are rising again. As we mourn the passing of 1 million of our fellow Americans, let us rededicate ourselves to pray for those who have died and for those who are currently sick.
“Dear brothers and sisters,” Pope Francis said, “I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. … May God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm.”
Scott Warden is managing editor of Our Sunday Visitor.